Richard Melman (front) poses by the salad bar in his first reataurant, R.J. Grunt's, in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood with his family.
The Reader's archive is vast and varied, going back to 1971. Every day in Archive Dive, we'll dig through and bring up some finds.
My grandmother often speaks fondly about, of all things, waiting in line to eat at the original RJ Grunts in Lincoln Park. The first restaurant opened by what is now the culinary juggernaut Lettuce Entertain You group offered something no one else had: a salad bar. Think about that for a second. Richard Melman, the man behind RJ Grunts, is responsible for the popularity of the salad bar, and probably single-handedly saved the sneeze-guard industry.
Lettuce Entertain You restaurants, which include Maggiano's, Big Bowl, and Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba!, have been copied and pasted with immaculate precision all over the country, though the vast majority are in Chicago Each serves a distinct style of cuisine: Maggiano's is classic Italian, for example, while Ba-Ba-Reeba is a tapas bar. Lettuce Entertain You, on the surface, comes across as a series of "theme" restaurants, but back in 2006 the Reader's Elizabeth M. Tamny argued Lettuce did just as much as Charlie Trotter to set the stage for the great Chicago restaurant boom that began in the early aughts:
[T]he rosters at places like Alinea, Avenues, and Moto owe as much to Melman as they do to Trotter: Lettuce has provided a means of keeping culinary talent in town—with the company's general professional opportunities, certainly, but also with corporate jobs that provide income during the inevitable transition periods in chefs' careers. Melman has been able to offer midlevel employment solutions in the all-or-nothing restaurant world to talented chefs who need a break from its harsh demands or aren't quite ready to dive into launching their own place. Mary Ellen Diaz, for instance, worked as a corporate Lettuce chef after burning out at North Pond Cafe; Gabriel Viti served two years as a Lettuce chef before stepping into the head chef position at Carlos' and eventually opening his own restaurant.
The cuisines offered by Lettuce restaurants invites diners to experiment—priming the pump for future foodies.
Even more important has been Melman's influence on the average Chicago restaurant-goer. The newly knowledgeable and adventurous diner is, according to Charlie Trotter, the biggest difference between being a restaurateur now and when he first began. "People were intimidated back then," he told me last year. "Now . . . they're more savvy and understand things, which is great for all of us who are trying to cook and push the envelope."
Lettuce restaurants have played a role in bringing diners out and encouraging them to try new things, but they've also prepped us, with their rich theater and painstaking attention to detail, for the excesses of the new cuisine.
Lettuce restaurants is the platform that continues to elevated our food scene, providing an entryway into new cuisines. Plus, they can travel through time. Note Ed Debevic's, a re-creation of a 1950's diner, rude servers and all. The staff occasionally danced on the counter, too. Plus, people who didn't understand the sassy server conceit got pretty offended, which is still pretty funny to watch.